Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The 'ship has sailed UPDATED

Every so often, we must remember the unpaid interns. Accustomed to working for no pay as students (albeit working for themselves), it's an easy leap to working for no pay to benefit an organization. Accustomed to coming out behind financially (it's increasingly difficult for full-time students with jobs on the side to pay for their own tuition and living expenses, and extra good luck to kids who want to do this but whose FAFSA indicates well-off parents), what's one more setback? What I wrote in 2006, consider it repeated. Again.

While there are all kinds of fairness issues, legal issues, and so on, it would seem that an obvious problem with the unpaid internship is that it claims to be a "learning experience" in a way that a regular job presumably is not, when one of the most important workplace skills, if not the most important, is the money part. It's how to budget your paycheck. It's how to factor in what a job (or career path) pays when deciding if you want to pursue it. It's trying to get a raise or - more relevant for the college-student employee - negotiating to get paid at all by a boss who knows perfectly well you'd be easy enough to exploit, and that you don't need-need the money the way a 40-year-old does, or do but don't know how to complain, and won't make a fuss. It's your welcome into the grown-up world of bureaucracy and keeping tax forms in the right file folders. It's knowing that if you want to spend $3 of those $10 you earned that past hour on a happy-hour beer, that's your call, and you don't have to ask permission.

The whole unpaid thing, meanwhile, doesn't merely neglect to teach skills about money and the workplace. It ends up teaching something else, namely that it's crass and getting-ahead-of-yourself to demand any pay at all for your labor. That someone would have to be incredibly entitled not to simply appreciate having been given the opportunity to interact with the office staff in the form of  making copies and fetching them coffee. It teaches that if you want to get ahead, you have to show that you love your job and aren't in it for the money, and the way to do that is to take money entirely out of the equation. Meanwhile, the tough skill to hone is how to show your commitment to your job while also standing up for yourself financially.

As for socioeconomic unfairness, the usual charge made against unpaid internships, it seems that these positions by and large lead (if they lead anywhere, which they often don't) to mostly-low-paid professions (non-profits, journalism, publishing), and/or ones that were all about wealth and connections anyway, and now it's just that more obvious early on. As to the specific question launching the debate: Are fashion internships unfair? If we were to locate the "fair" in that industry, it would extend no further than the often-also-unpaid models' complexion. If it's tough for a poor kid to start working at Vogue, it's also tough for any kid who isn't a big-name heiress. Yes, a certain number of entry-level or administrative jobs in these fields have disappeared, and yes, this is irritating to those of us who'd have been interested in such work after college, but did not see working for no pay as an option. But college students looking to enter the upper-middle class through the usual channels (law, finance, medicine, engineering) might end up with plenty of student-loan debt, but are not yet, as far as I know, part of the unpaid-coffee-fetching system. I'm not sure how much the issue we should be concerned with here is social mobility, or, conversely, how much those concerned with social mobility should worry about the existence of unpaid internships.

Of course, one danger is that unpaid internships have begun to seep into the world beyond glamorous stints in the major cities. This is both the now-notorious "internship" that involves, say, flipping burgers or throwing oil-filled rubber balls out of Jerry's apartment (or, good grief, work as a real estate broker), and, more abstractly, the extension of the idea that unpaid labor is acceptable to populations not currently taking unpaid internships. Another is the whole "two Americas" argument - it used to be something of an equalizer that all young people took crap jobs for pocket money, and now, not so much. Yet another is the whole extension-of-childhood conundrum - it's already assumed that parents who can will pay for college, which, in turn, defines "college-age" as still childhood, even if some young adults that age are financially independent. Especially once unpaid internships reach over into the recent-grad population, cue the when-will-they-ever-marry-and-settle-down complaints. If you're old enough to work, are indeed working, and your parents still pay for everything (or would if they could), that's an interesting new life stage right there.


I was just drawn into a Facebook back-and-forth about what I'd written in Gothamist, and someone (not sure the etiquette of linking to stuff on Facebook, so will make grammatical choices that "deny agency" as they say in academia, whoever they are) brought up a counterargument worth addressing, which I will paraphrase: What if interns provide some service to the (for-profit, for simplicity's sake) organizations where they work, but do not contribute enough to the bottom line to merit their hiring at the minimum wage? (I'm going to hazard a guess that this isn't always the case, but my interlocutor works in magazine journalism, and seems to have more first-hand experience.) If this is an apprenticeship, why can't an employer use this period as an extended job interview, and only hire those who will help the company succeed?

One answer would be that if five interns produce the work of one admin, the company should forget about the fun and glamour of having the fresh-faced and unpaid in their offices and hire one experienced but probably not even all that high-paid employee to do the job. But the problem here is that by definition, some employment will always be entry-level, untested. The apprenticeship surely has its place. One option, then, would be to have a separate, internship-specific minimum wage (which I'd think is what already exists in some capacity when an internship comes with a stipend?), such that work is acknowledged, as is the intermediary nature of this type of work.

What also came out of this exchange, and the one below in the comments, is the importance of thinking of internships in terms of where interns actually end up. Much is made, in academia, of the fact that there are more grad students than (permanent academic) jobs. If you look at the ratio of funded grad students to jobs, it's probably less dire, but still grim. But at least this is time spent with some income, with health insurance. With unpaid internships - which individually take much less time than grad programs, but which, in a field like journalism, can become a string of unpaid stints lasting for years - there's both the uncertainty about what's on the other end and the continued full reliance on parents/loans/outside jobs. It would seem that if all internships paid at least something, there'd be fewer internships, but still plenty more internships than jobs.


PG said...

Meanwhile, the tough skill to hone is how to show your commitment to your job while also standing up for yourself financially.

Doesn't this whole argument apply almost equally to jobs that are paid, but not very well? E.g. until the mid '90s, Congress wasn't bound by minimum wage laws, so many entry-level jobs on the Hill paid less than working at McD's. People still took and did these jobs because they were the stepping stone to better jobs (where "better" was measured more in prestige and power than in money). It's arguably more problematic for only people whose families are subsidizing their existence to be helping to write our laws, than it is for only such people to be editing Vogue.

Starting in a poorly-paid or unpaid job doesn't preclude making yourself indispensable and then demanding money. I have a friend who worked in the Senate in the late 1990s who got himself out of the minimum wage by doing just that -- he knew how to use software at a point when most people in his office didn't understand Excel spreadsheets. After a few months, he threatened to leave unless they stopped making him do data entry and gave him a raise.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The difference between low-paid and unpaid isn't infinite (thus why I mention that part of why we shouldn't be so concerned about unpaid magazine-type internships is that the next step up is making, what, $15k a year and otherwise requiring parental support). There are all kinds of fields where we'd want kids from more diverse socioecon backgrounds to have a shot, but the reality of pay virtually across the board makes that difficult. (Political journalism also comes to mind.)

But it's still important, symbolically as well as practically. Practically, if you're a kid who isn't trying to pay rent with your earnings, but your parents aren't giving you pocket money/you want to pay for your own incidentals yourself, even something well below a living wage will make a difference.

Symbolically, though, the difference is huge. Even if you're getting a stipend that's less than the minimum wage, even if what you're making in no way provides meaningful financial independence, the organization is sending a message that your contributions have a value. That you are doing something for the org., and not merely benefitting from their generous willingness to let you make copies for the higher-ups. And none of this means that an org. should be massively compensating untested new workers. The pay would be low, but not nil.

The question isn't whether the connections made at unpaid internships ever help an individual's career, nor am I claiming that the individual student/grad within the system currently in place would be foolish to take a competitive unpaid internship in his chosen field. It's totally understandable, from the students' end, why this could be the best thing around.

But that doesn't make it acceptable for organizations to exploit the willingness of the desperate to work for free. If these places just hired fewer interns and paid whichever paltry amount, more interns would go on to permanent jobs. If the answer is that the organizations "need" these interns to function, this ought to tell us something about the justification for not hiring them.

PG said...

I don't think an organization legally *can* put itself in the position of permanently depending on unpaid interns. I don't remember if we've discussed this before, but federal regulations (which the Obama Administration has been trying to enforce more strictly) prohibit using free intern labor as an actual replacement for what would otherwise be a paid position. Understandably, those concerned with workers' rights are worried that Management will "exploit the willingness of the desperate to work for free." (Conservatives have criticized the enforcement initiative as blocking young people's entry to the labor market.)

The way to remain in legal compliance is to make internships "educational." If it's just a long stream of coffee fetching, copy-making and such, then the employer is probably breaking the law. I've only had one unpaid internship that wasn't explicitly part of a course for credit, at the American Bar Association, and they didn't have me making coffee or any of that sort of thing. I learned how to do basic legal research as well as some organizational skills for a nonprofit. Because one of the secretaries left a few weeks before the end of my internship, I did take over some of her duties, but even that was educational -- I had to answer phones, but I also learned how to use a MS Access database. I felt my work was valued, but the full-time workers there clearly felt themselves to be in a mentoring/teaching role to me, not that I was their drudge to order around. I don't think cash money is the only way to show someone's work is valued. My little sister received a small stipend for a year-long internship she did at a think tank, but I think the more meaningful acknowledgement of her work came in things like having her name on published reports, being thanked for her research assistance in books written by the think tank's scholars or in their Congressional testimony, etc.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


All of your arguments, and those of my interlocutor who works at a magazine, amount to: there are plusses to a first job unrelated to pay. Which is true, but I fail to see a) how the complete lack of pay isn't itself problematic, and b) how a job somehow ceases to be educational, ceases to have non-monetary rewards, once pay enters the picture. It's especially the latter - by all accounts you get more out of your first job(s) in new skills than in pay. But the whole "now someone acknowledges my work with money" bit is key, and I haven't seen any arguments for why this lovely, warm, nurturing educational experience that involves learning how to do new tasks and then doing them for an org.'s benefit shouldn't culminate in some pay, if not minimum wage then a stipend of some kind.

If anything, what bugs me so much about this is that everyone seems to have bought into the idea that an internship is just such a lovely thing that it would be wrong to even think of asking for something so crass as money in exchange for labor. It screws up people's approach to work. Not people who go into corporate law, probably, but in a number of fields, yes.

I do think there's a difference with for-profit settings, and that there's something extra-crude about working for free for, I don't know, Gucci. But at any org. with paid staff, ideally even entry-level, precarious staff (i.e. interns) are getting something.

PG said...

I think the problem with demanding money for *all* labor that possibly benefits an organization is that many employers (particularly nonprofits) don't have the money to spare to pay someone whom they are educating and whose labor doesn't provide enough benefit, particularly relative to the cost of training them, to warrant payment. I doubt the ABA would offer summer internships if obliged to pay the interns. The folks in my office did give me a gift certificate (somewhere between $50-100) and a thank-you card they'd all signed on my last day, which was nice in the "acknowledge my efforts" sense, but it fell short of paying my rent, even at "top bunk in a dorm" rates.

The difference between an unpaid internship and a real job, in terms of the benefit to the employer, seem clear to me, at least based on my own experience. The next summer, I worked for a political polling company as a telephone pollster. My employer was not interested in my learning anything beyond a half-hour training the first day; they just wanted me to knock out as many completed polls as possible. I got paid $10/hour, and if I got a certain number completed I got a bonus $2/hour.

Except for making me more cynical about polling (especially partisan push-polls), the experience didn't really give me any new abilities or skills or information. It's not something I'd ever do without being compensated because it's pretty mindless except when you're trying to manipulate people into giving you more of their time, and people yell at you for calling them on the Lord's Day. (The mind boggles at how much more of a negative reaction they probably get nowadays, when they call people on their cellphones and use up their minutes.)

The difference between a good unpaid internship and a moderately crap job has been pretty significant. I wouldn't tell anyone to take a crap internship, which is why I'm in favor of the government enforcing the labor regs and schools getting honest feedback on internships. But I think it paints with an overbroad brush to say that no one should ever take an unpaid internship because it is always exploitative.

Heck, I'm a grown-ass woman with years of work experience, and I'm contemplating taking the equivalent of an unpaid internship now because I have to get 5 months of legal work supervised by a local attorney before I can be admitted to a particular state's bar. If they hired me as a real lawyer, working far more than 40 hours per week, there's no way I also simultaneously could finish my post-grad degree and study for the bar exam during those 5 months. So I'm going to see if I can get a mutually-beneficial arrangement in which I do some legal work, and in return they sign off on my forms. I suppose that's the antonym to "exploitative": mutually beneficial. If you aren't certain there will be a benefit, then yeah, maybe don't take that internship. If there's a clear, albeit not-immediately-monetary, benefit to you, go for it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


You're a good arguer and no doubt in the right profession, as I've no doubt told you before. But on this, I'm quite certain you're wrong. If you're providing a service to an organization, and it's not a charity, you need to be paid. If it needs to be a stipend and not minimum wage (let alone living wage), so be it. If an industry is really so broke that it can't pay its workers, then maybe it shouldn't be inviting college students/grads to intern in the first place.

In another era, an unpaid intern would have been called a "mailroom worker" or "secretary" but now they call it an internship and throw in a bit of mentoring (or a lot of mentoring!) that for all you know would have been available to the entry-level worker you'd have been in a different era. You seem to have bought into the idea that mentoring and interesting work comes with no pay (until, presumably, one is established), and pay equals dead-end work. There are, for example, paid internships. (I had two of those, neither through connections, and it completely made a difference in how I viewed the work experience that I knew I was respected enough to get a paycheck.) There are (well, were) also menial-ish entry-level jobs where the networking opportunities were there, but not officially part of the job description. I'm not sure why we're supposed to celebrate that these days, those jobs have been replaced by a great deal of mentorship (in your experience - "mentorship" in others') and the pay is, often enough, entirely gone. Why wouldn't it be better for the first rung to be "entry-level job," with low pay and informal chances to make something more of it?

"Heck, I'm a grown-ass woman with years of work experience, and I'm contemplating taking the equivalent of an unpaid internship"

I'm not concerned with lawyers married to lawyers who are doing fine financially (I'll presume) and who can perfectly well look after themselves. It's hardly the same situation as a college student or recent grad looking to get a start.

PG said...

But if your concern is just that people have enough money to look after themselves, then so long as your parents or spouse or savings account can bear it, what's the problem with the unpaid internship, such that any organization that can't afford to hire an inexperienced person (but is willing to provide useful mentoring and training) should be ethically or legally barred from allowing someone to work there unpaid?

Moreover, a focus on people's having enough money to "get a start" seems a bit contradictory of the sentiment that a nominal stipend makes all the difference in how you regard an internship. If you're putting forward the view that all labor not on behalf of a charity ought to be paid*, and the reason it ought to be paid is that people need to make a living, but this doesn't apply to people who *don't* need to make a living... that's different from the reason is that people ought to have their labor dignified with money (but the actual amount of money is irrelevant and has nothing to do with making a living, so it applies as much to someone living off a trust fund as to someone living on ramen).

Those are some long run-on sentences, but the point is that I think I'm getting confused by your argument because I can't tell if you're making a practical claim (people need to make a living) or a principled one (it is wrong to use labor without paying something for it, regardless of whether the something meets even the legal minimum requirement for wages).

I've had extremely well-paid internships (eg being a "summer associate" at law firms), but those firms were giving me work basically on the level that they'd be giving to a first-year associate. I was expected to put in an equivalent amount of effort and turn in work product that was almost as good as a "real" associate's would be. I also was expected never to take credit for any work I produced; it belonged to the firm/ person who'd assigned it to me.

* I don't know how it works in your field, but the idea that someone should be paid for writing articles contradicts the practice of most legal publishing. I think the only folks who generally pay for legal scholarship are textbook publishers -- most law journals, whether published through an academic or a professional organization, do not. Again, mutual benefit: people research, write and submit articles for free because it's worthwhile to establish themselves as experts in the field (whether to get tenure, or to get clients).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


-"I can't tell if you're making a practical claim (people need to make a living) or a principled one (it is wrong to use labor without paying something for it, regardless of whether the something meets even the legal minimum requirement for wages)."

I promise it's not as confusing as all that. Look, not all individual jobs pay enough to live on. When I've freelanced, the $200 or whatever I'd get six months after the article did not pay my rent. Virtually any job a college kid works twice a week, 10 hrs a week, whatever, isn't going to support that kid entirely, let alone a family of five. If you work multiple jobs that each pay a bit, but that add up to plenty, no one job you have pays you enough to live on, but it doesn't matter. What "pay" means is different depending on your situation. It doesn't always mean 100% financial independence from one employer. It does, however, always mean respect. It's empowering and important to be able to buy a coffee from the money you made doing X, which could well be the level that matters to a 19-year-old kid from a middle-class family. And you can't do that with an unpaid internship.

-Yes, there are people with family money who can take these internships. And if all unpaid internships were were opportunities for heiresses to "work" at Vogue or Louis Vuitton, or for budding philanthropists to volunteer their time at charities, there wouldn't be much of a concern. But that's not what unpaid internships are, generally speaking, so it's not OK for employers to ask this.

What gets lost here is that of course in plenty of cases, through second jobs or parents or loans, a 23-year-old who isn't fabulously wealthy technically speaking can work for free, but this is still a negative development insofar as it extends the childhood of people who essentially are in the workforce. Maybe the parents of a 23-year-old have enough money to pay for that kid to work, and work-work to benefit a company, not school to get a degree. Why should they? Why should the kids want that? Why is this something to celebrate?

-Re: the law, I'm not a lawyer, as you may recall, nor is this some kind of Resolved: The Law Must Ban Unpaid Internships. I think unpaid internships are bad virtually across the board, a bad development, a bad 'new normal,' but I don't know exactly what's to be done. But one possibility is that there could be, if there isn't already, a legal category of "stipend" pay, to allow internships to have this intermediary position, while still acknowledging that interns, well, work. I don't have a clue of what amount this would be, whether there'd be restrictions (must be a student, must be under 25, etc.), but this would be one way to maintain an "apprenticeship" category while also making sure work is acknowledged with pay.

-Articles - it's assumed you're a student/academic/academically-inclined lawyer and you have a salary/stipend/loans/etc., and this is part of the job. These are not jobs where you're paid per piece, as it were. If I'm a TA and stay after class to discuss something with a student, I don't go to the grad school with a timecard.